Hello 21st Century Voices!

By Rose Hahn
Hey there, American Stage supporters! My name is Rose Hahn and I am one of this year’s Acting and Production apprentices. You may recognize me from a series of somewhat silly, borderline embarrassing instagram stories that I am featured in. If not, allow me to introduce myself as a somewhat silly, borderline embarrassing, recent college graduate, former Baltimore, Maryland resident. We are a little over a month into the apprenticeship and going strong, learning how to navigate the professional theatre world and delving into new projects daily. From workshops with experienced actors and fight directors, to sitting in on rehearsals, to hanging light fixtures in the grid, each experience I have had so far at American Stage has left me even more excited for what is to come.

Now that I’ve introduced myself, let’s talk about New Plays!!!

When you sit in the audience at a theatre, whether it be at a professional level like at American Stage or at your grandchild’s school musical, your senses are enlivened and your mind is thrilled by the design, directing, and acting choices that many many people have worked hard to create for you. It can be hard to imagine those plays as text on a page before all the other elements were added on, as something that you could read the same way you might read a book or an article in the news. And yet, at some point, before that play was produced on the stage, it had to be just that: words written with the intent of being seen, with the hope of being seen. At some point, a playwright stayed up all night translating their feelings and images into something concrete and readable. At some point some director, or artistic director, or artistic team, looked at that 12 point Times New Roman font and saw that script come to life in their mind’s eye.

You may be wondering: How do we get from a stack of papers or a file on the computer to a fully fledged production? This is a question I have asked myself often, as an actor, as a playwright (a sort-of playwright), and as a theatre artist and enthusiast. In addition to their vibrant and beautiful mainstage productions, their thriving education and improvisation programs, and their countless fun and exciting events throughout the year, American Stage is committed to discovering and supporting the next generation of new plays and playwrights through their 21st Century Voices: New Play Festival.

During my time in college I developed a passion for new Play Development. I acted in numerous new plays, both in staged readings and fully fledged productions, directed staged readings, and even organized and curated my own festival of 12 new plays my senior year. You can imagine I was super (super duper) excited when I found out that American Stage had a new play development initiative!
21st Century Voices started three years ago (which also happens to be the very best year in American Stage history – the first year of the Apprentice program) and has since grown into something that many people are eager and excited to participate in. The theatre is currently in the midst of its selection process for this year’s five festival participants. Back when this apprenticeship was nothing but a dream in my mind, submissions for the festival were being accepted in the form of ten page samples. The 540 play samples were evaluated by a committee of American Stage employees, artists and associates. After the first round, full plays were requested from 45 playwrights based on scores, subject matter, and committee advocacy. Each play was then assigned a group of 4 readers so as to get a wide range of feedback. Before even arriving in Florida, I was assigned several plays to read in preparation for the next stage of the selection process.

Reading a new play is different then reading a published play. It is a challenge in that you have to balance accepting the play for what is and seeing the play for its potential. Each reader was given a template for how to approach the plays they were assigned, which definitely made the adjudication process more doable. We (the readers) gathered today, having filled out our evaluation forms, to discuss the second round of plays, and engage in some spirited debate about which ones we wanted to see in the festival. Different people took different approaches to the reading of the plays. Some were looking for a “fresh new voice”, others for relatable and natural dialogue. With four readers on each play, we were able to get a wide range of perspectives.

I’ll be the first to admit that I was happy just to sit back and listen to these smart and observant theatre professionals discussing the pros and cons of each piece of new work in the top ten. It blossomed into debates about things such as who can tell what stories, and what types of themes and images the theatre wants to share. Talking about the work led to conversations about topical issues such as gender equality, immigration, and atypical family dynamics. It became clear through this meeting that the purpose of this festival goes beyond finding the most witty or clever playwright. We are looking for stories that reflect the world around us, that resonate with the challenges and hopes we face every day. And everyone on the committee was dedicated to collaborating to find those bold, relevant, well-told new stories.

As for the next step, I interviewed Stephanie Gularte about the purpose of 21st Century Voices and how this process will continue now that the first two rounds of reading are over.

What is the purpose of 21st Century Voices?
Stephanie Gularte: To provide a path for playwrights and their works to be developed. To make sure we are creating opportunities for stories to continue to be generated. To continue to develop plays through the collaborative process with other artists and to eventually find their way to audiences here at American Stage and throughout the country.

How does this fit in with the rest of the Life Out Loud Season?
SG: New play development is really one of the most exciting places to be in terms of storytelling because new plays are responding to our world right now. And so the relevance of these stories and their connection to the life we’re living out loud right now today is really at its most realized.

What are the next steps in the selection process?
SG: So basically I’m now kind of taking the feedback from the committee and doing my own look at the selections that really stood out to us as being stories that really need to be told right now and that are in a place in their development where we can really provide additional perspective to the playwright and are also in a place where our audiences can enjoy them as fully formed pieces.
It’s an art not a science. I’ll certainly be reading the top scoring plays but there are also some that maybe didn’t have a one hundred percent consensus but maybe peaked somebody’s interest so I’ll be looking at those as well. I’ll be doing a lot of reading!

We’ve talked a lot about subject matter so outside of that, what factors are you taking into consideration when looking at the final line up for the festival?
SG: We really want plays that are at a point in their development where they could potentially be ready for a production soon. Based on the size of our organization and our commitment to producing new works, we would like to work with plays for 21st century festival that are at that kind of later stage of their development. We have other programs where we work with playwrights earlier on, but for this festival I’m looking for pieces where the story structures are really strong, the characters are well developed, the dialogue is smart and interesting. A lot of the final selections, the work that needs to be done is really just judicious editing that really best happens once the playwright can hear the play out loud.

What types of voices are you looking for this year in particular?
SG: There really isn’t a kind of voice that I want now different than another time other than that I am certainly interested in voices we don’t hear very much, that aren’t given a platform often enough. But what I am always looking for is a certain authenticity, and that can look like a lot of different things.

Ultimately, with this program, American Stage is looking to give a platform to the next generation of voices. We want to share and engage with the new work in order to help it grow into what will hopefully one day be a fully fledged production. It is so fun and exciting to be a part of this process, even if only for part of it, because it feels like a glimpse into the future of playwriting and storytelling. And, trust me, if these plays and this awesome selection committee are any indication, the future looks bright!

To learn more about 21st Century Voices, visit americanstage.org/play-submissions/